BMCR 2013.04.26

Vertere: un’antropologia della traduzione nella cultura antica. Piccola biblioteca

, Vertere: un'antropologia della traduzione nella cultura antica. Piccola biblioteca. Torino: Einaudi, 2012. xx, 316. ISBN 9788806211523. €23.00.

Perhaps best known in the English-speaking world as the author of Anthropology and Roman Culture, Maurizio Bettini has made his mark with a series of ambitious and sophisticated studies of the anthropology of ancient cultures, regarding topics ranging from music and sound to the Roman kinship system.1 In his latest book, he tackles translation and aims to reconstruct for his readers the cultural metaphors through which it was conceptualized in the ancient world from Herodotus to the early Christians.

There are several reasons why the topic of translation is particularly well suited for the type of discourse-based analysis for which Bettini is well known. First, as Bettini himself acknowledges in the preface, in many different ways translation is the engine of the Classics: to start with, translation is one of the cultural operations through which a work attains the status of a classic.2 In our field, repeated translation is also the dominant means of transmitting of cultural capital: for obvious reasons, translation is the most fundamental mode of engagement with Greek and Roman texts in our classrooms. Besides being central to our own work as interpreters of the Classics, translation is one of the most recurrent and vital cultural tropes at the heart of Roman culture, which from its earliest beginnings had to find ways to conceptualize the creative use, adaptation, and emulation of Greek models.

It follows, therefore, that Bettini’s effort to explore and bring to light the cultural specificity of translation practices — the differences between our way of conceptualizing translation and theirs — is particularly welcome in that it encourages us to reflect on what is at stake in our own recourse to translation as a mode of consumption and transmission of classical texts. Here, Bettini’s focus on the evolution of concepts of translation across time adds an interesting historical dimension to the conversation about alterity and difference in translation studies, a conversation associated primarily with Lawrence Venuti’s work.3 Last but not least, the book’s preoccupation with paradigms of cultural assimilation and difference shares many affinities with Bettini’s prior work: the extent to which the act of translation should be understood as an independent cultural narrative, the status of the target text in relation to the source, the cultural function of unbridgeable gaps between the latter and the target language are areas closely related to his own effort to reconstruct the discursive practices of Classical cultures.4

The book is divided into ten chapters preceded by a short introduction. The first half (chapters 1-5) is centered on Rome, while in the second part, Bettini moves to Greece through an exploration of the figure of the hermeneus, concluding with an analysis of a number of narratives concerning the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek known as the Septuagint. Chapter one focuses on Plautus, Poenulus and in particular the dialogue between the Carthaginian Hanno and Agorastocles’ slave Milphio in which the latter’s “translation” consists of matching Hanno’s Carthaginian with Latin words not of equivalent meaning but of equivalent sound. Here Bettini sees the scene as a reductio ad absurdum of etymological practices attested in Varro (among others), who derives Latin words from Greek words of similar sound (a process known as commutatio). Bettini’s subtle reading of the Poenulus sets up the main theme of his analysis: the radical alterity of the concepts used by the Romans to denote what we would call “translation” is in Milphio’s case better thought of not as a word-by-word rendering but rather as a new narrative. Thus, in chapter 2 the author continues his exploration by focusing on the metaphorical implications of the Latin word that is most frequently used of translating texts — vertere. Tracking the use of this verb in the context of narratives of metamorphosis in Plautus and Ovid, Bettini argues that vertere implies the notion that the source text is no longer present in the target language: the act of “translation” is thought of as enacting a metamorphosis of the original into something different from its former self. This point is elaborated further in chapter 3 where Bettini focuses on the prologue to Terence’s Eunuchus, showing that the bad writing ( male scribere) which he imputes to the poet Luscius’ good translation ( bene vertere) is not the result of an excessively faithful rendering from the Greek but a perceived defect in the organization of his own plot. The next two chapters deal with two apparent exceptions to Bettini’s thesis that the Romans were fundamentally not interested in the “faithfulness” of translation: in chapter 4, he argues that the expression ad verbum exprimere (discussed in two chronologically different attestations —Terence, Adelphoe 7 and Cicero de finibus 1.4) does not render the notion of a verbatim translation because verbum refers to a complex thought sequence rather than a single word. Chapter 5 moves on to the figure of the interpres : Bettini sees the latter not as a passive mediator but, going back to the word’s etymological connection to commercial value ( interpres <* inter/pretium), as responsible for enacting a fair cultural transaction in which the goods exchanged are equivalent in value, not in kind. This thesis is brought to life in his reading of the beginning of Cicero de optimo genere oratorum (a passage which functioned as a preface to Cicero’s translation of two Greek orations by Aeschines and Demosthenes respectively) and of the fidus interpres of Horace, Ars Poetica 131ff.

Chapter 6 shifts the focus onto Greek culture, specifically to the relation between the Roman interpres and the Greek hermeneus. While the choice of arrangement (Latin followed by Greek) has much to recommend it, this reader was left wondering about the implications of the multiculturalism of the Greco-Roman world for our understanding of translation practices, particularly under the Roman Empire: for example, what role, if any, does bilingualism play in the construction of linguistic adaptation?5 And how would documentary evidence of bilingual inscriptions (e.g. the Res Gestae of Augustus) affect Bettini’s argument? Here focusing principally on Plato’s portrayal of the rhapsode as the poet’s hermeneus in the Ion, Bettini argues that the latter, not unlike the word hexegetes, points to a process not of verbatim translation but of articulation in language of another person’s thought, a process connected through a process of folk, if not actual, etymology to Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Chapters 6 and 7 explore translation by examining a fascinating recurrent trans-cultural narrative: the impossibility of translation resulting in two people exchanging goods silently and in each other’s absence, purely relying on faith in each other. The nexus of commerce and language in this practice known as “silent trade” echoes Bettini’s earlier examination of the economics of translation and is illustrated with admirable breadth (from Herodotus’ depiction of the Hyperboreans to the customs of sixteenth-century Mali). According to Bettini, the emphasis on the honesty of the parties in silent trade points implicitly to an inherent characteristic of the absent translator: his capacity to inspire or repel trust. The last two chapters deal with the making of the Septuagint in third-century BC Alexandria. Tracking extant narratives from Philo and the Letter of Aristeas, to Jerome, Augustine, and Tertullian, the author is not so much interested in reconstructing how the project was carried out, but rather in what these mythologies of translation written several centuries apart reveal about the changes in perceptions of language and its adaptability. Broadly put, Bettini’s thesis is that the modern notion of translation as a faithful rendering is alien to Greco-Roman society, but originates rather in Judeo-Christian culture in which for the first time God is seen as communicating through written language. All texts are translated and the book is endowed with a selective bibliography and five appendices that develop some of the philological arguments in more depth.

While in Bettini’s competent hands the anthropology of translation opens up literary texts to historical analysis in ways that I personally found rewarding and stimulating, it may find its critics among some more historically minded readers. When, for example, in reconstructing the interpretation of Terence’s prologues recourse is made to the commentary by Aelius Donatus (whose pupil, Jerome, was one of the most renowned biblical translators in antiquity), one is left wondering how Donatus’ own historical perspective might have influenced his approach to the phrase bene vertere. However, Bettini is well aware of the historical nuances and the dangers of flattening the historical and cultural layers within antiquity. When, for example, he argues that Terence’s appropriation of Menander is not to be framed as an instance of furtum, because the borders of literary property in Roman culture do not extend to texts in foreign languages, he supplements the observation with a full note on the accusation of plagiarism moved against Virgil for his use of Homeric models. Here, however, though Bettini himself argues for historical change, one is left wanting a deeper engagement with the questions of the development of notions of literary property and originality over time and their relation to translation practices.6

Nonetheless, this book’s sophistication and breadth is further testimony to the author’s unique ability to stimulate thought and open new avenues of investigation. At the heart of Bettini’s approach lies a belief that culture is essentially discourse: if a society is understood as the system of symbols through which it represents itself, then the role of the cultural historian is that of teasing out the metaphors that structure and inform a culture’s experience of the world. In Bettini’s approach, therefore, language itself is historical evidence; the metaphors through which language operates can never be presumed to be “dead” or “accidental” but rather are alive with meaningful cultural associations, which both reflect and mold their users’ beliefs. The book is thus a recommended read for anyone interested in the history of translation, semiotics and literary criticism, and above all for classicists interested in the “future of philology”7 and the possibilities (and limitations) of using literary texts as part of a cultural narrative.


1. The Ears of Hermes: Communication, Images and Identity in the Classical World (Columbus, OH: 2011); The Portrait of the Lover (Berkeley: 1999); Anthropology and Roman Culture: Kinship, Time and Images of the Soul (Baltimore: 1991).

2. L. Venuti, “Translation, Interpretation and Canon Formation”, in A. Lanieri and V. Zajko, Translation and the Classics: Identity as Change in the History of Culture (Oxford: 2008).

3. L. Venuti, The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference (London and New York: 1998).

4. For a short but comprehensive introduction to Bettini’s anthropology of the Classics see M. Bettini, “Anthropology” in A. Barchiesi and W. Scheidel, The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies (Oxford: 2010).

5. See for example J. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge: 2008); J. Adams, M. Janse, S. Swain (eds.), Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Text (Oxford: 2002).

6. For which, see now S. McGill, Plagiarism in Latin Literature (Cambridge. 2012).

7. S. Pollock, “Future Philology? The fate of a soft science in a hard world,” Critical Inquiry 35.4, 2009, The Fate of Disciplines, edited by J. Chandler and A. I. Davidson, 931-61.